Sporting chokes

Athletes’ fear of failure likely to lead to ‘choke’, study shows

A new study by sports scientists at Coventry University and Staffordshire University shows that anxiety about a competitive situation makes even the most physically active of us more likely to slip-up.

The research, which is set to be presented at the British Psychological Society’s flagship annual conference this week, tested the anticipation and coordination abilities1 of 18 active and healthy young adults during two sets of identical physical tests – one ostensibly a practice, the other a competition2.

In the ‘competitive’ trials, researchers found that the participants’ coincidence anticipation timing (CAT) – or their ability to anticipate and coordinate actions akin to catching a ball or striking a moving object – was significantly worse than in the practice scenarios.

At the same time, participants’ mental (cognitive) anxiety levels were found to be substantially higher during the competitive trials than they were in practice, a likely result of worrying about their performance.

The detrimental effect on anticipation timing was at its most acute during the more physically intensive parts of the competitive trials, but – significantly – was not evident during the practice trials, indicating that cognitive anxiety is a decisive factor in performance failure.

The findings support the predictions of ‘catastrophe theory’ – a theory popular amongst sports coaches and psychologists – which posits that sporting performance will be adversely affected by increased stress and anxiety.

Dr Michael Duncan, lead author of the study and associate head of the Department of Applied Sciences and Health at Coventry University, said:

“Anxiety in a competitive situation, whether sporting or otherwise, is something everyone can relate to. We’re all familiar with what we call ‘somatic’ anxiety, for example butterflies in the tummy which is the body’s response to tension, but this study is chiefly concerned with the effects of cognitive anxieties such as worry or fear of failure.

“Our research indicates that heightened cognitive anxiety, brought on by the competitive scenario, really does affect performance abilities in physically active people – and the same is likely to apply even for trained athletes. 

“Where this study differs from anything in the past is that we measured these responses ‘in-event’ rather than after performance, so we’re generating a much more accurate picture of whether catastrophe theory has any value. The results strongly support the theory, which should make for interesting reading for sports professionals and psychologists around the world.”


Dr Duncan et al will be presenting the full findings from their research during the British Psychological Society’s annual conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, May 7th–9th 2014.


10 Greatest chokes in sporting history

1 Greg Norman
The Masters, Augusta, 1996

In the opening round of the 1996 Masters Greg Norman shot a course-record 63. Three days later he contrived to go round the same 18 holes at Augusta National in 15 strokes more. In the process he blew a six-shot lead – the biggest in Masters history – over Nick Faldo and converted it into a five-shot deficit. On the day Faldo was brilliant but brilliance alone would not have been enough to catch the Great White Shark had Norman not folded and run up a Great White flag.

2 Jana Novotna
Wimbledon, 1993

Despite eventually winning the Wimbledon title in 1998, Jana Novotna is best remembered for her tearful capitulation in the 1993 final against Steffi Graf. The Czech held a game point to go up 5-1 in the third set, but she failed to take advantage and Graf won the final five games of the match to claim victory.

3 England penalty takers
Turin 1990, Wembley 1996, St Etienne 1998

The roll-call of shame. Step forward Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate, Paul Ince and David Batty. Put England up against it, a semi-final of a major competition for example. Have them play against a top team and they will excel. They will overcome deficits, tears, near-misses and red cards. After 120 minutes of thrilling football the two teams can’t be separated except by a penalty shoot-out. And then it happens. Someone has to miss, fail, be cast as the goat. But why does it have to be a man with three lions on his shirt who finds the task of kicking a ball into a goal from 12 yards so bloody difficult?

5 Roberto Duran 
World title fight, New Orleans, 1980

When they choke, most athletes prefer that no one notices, that the world sees it as a defeat unbesmirched by an inner surrender. Roberto Duran, the fearsome Panamanian boxer, usually did things differently – and in his welterweight title fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in New Orleans in 1980 he performed one of the most unashamed and conspicuous chokes of all time. Confused and exasperated by Leonard’s slick movement, Duran suddenly stopped fighting in the eighth and declared, ‘No mas, no mas.’ He couldn’t take anymore and didn’t mind who knew it.

6 Doug Sanders
Open Championship, St Andrews, 1970

Doug Sanders had two putts from 30 feet to win the 1970 Open at St Andrews, edging out the mighty Jack Nicklaus in the process. Sanders left his first effort – downhill and across the green – 30 inches short. Then things went really wrong. ‘I was confident standing over it, and then I saw what I thought was a little piece of sand on my line,’ recalls Sanders. ‘Without moving my feet, I bent down to pick it up, but it was a piece of grass. I didn’t take time to move away and get reorganised. I mishit the ball and pushed it to the right of the hole. It was the most expensive missed putt in the history of the game.’ Too true. The following day he lost the 18-hole play-off to Nicklaus by a stroke.

7 Jimmy White
World snooker final, Sheffield, 1994

This would surely be Jimmy White’s year. The Whirlwind had the country cheering him on in every one of his six unsuccessful final appearances at the Crucible, where he put himself in the driving seat more than once. In 92 he led Stephen Hendry 14-8 before freezing and losing ten frames on the bounce to go down 18-14, but two years later he had glory in his grasp at 17-17 and in the balls, before missing a routine black off the spot by miles to throw away another Crucible dream. ‘It was a bread-and-butter pot for someone of Jimmy’s class,’ said one veteran observer, ‘but he missed it by so much that it could only have been a choke.’

8 Gavin Hastings
Rugby World Cup, Murrayfield, 1991

It should have been as straightforward as turning off a light switch for Scotland’s Mr Reliable, Gavin Hastings. But in a World Cup semi-final against England – in front of your home crowd – a penalty from in front of the posts can unsettle even those with the iciest blood in their veins. Sure enough, Hastings sliced it and the score remained 6-6 until Rob Andrew’s drop goal nicked it for England. As Hastings’s kick sailed wide, the normally restrained England winger Rory Underwood let slip a four-letter expletive in surprise. That’s how big a shock it was.

9 Michael Jordan
NBA, 1995

In one of the rare moments of his career, Michael Jordan was on the bad end of a costly turnover at the end of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Orlando Magic. Up by one with 20 seconds remaining, Nick Anderson poked the ball away from Jordan, leading to a fast break and the game-winning dunk. The Magic went on to win the series and went all the way to the NBA Finals. This was an incident Jordan would not soon forget.

10 Roberto Baggio
World Cup, 1994

The Divine Ponytail was already a legend in the Italian game, and in America in 1994 he carried an underperforming team all the way to the final, which he played in despite having an injury. With the Italians holding Brazil to a 0-0 draw the World Cup would be decided on penalties for the first time, and with Italy 3-2 down their hero stepped up to keep them in the shoot-out, but he blazed the fifth penalty high over the bar under the pressure and Brazil lifted the trophy.


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For further information, please contact Alex Roache, external press and media relations officer, Coventry University, on 024 7765 5050 or email

Alternatively, please contact Kathryn McCullagh, public relations officer, British Psychological Society, on 0116 252 95000 – or visit the on-site press office at the annual conference.

Notes to editors

1The Bassin Anticipation Timer (Model 35575, Lafayette, USA) was used to assess participants’ coincidence anticipation timing. It is the most precise, reliable and validated measure of CAT currently available.

2In the case of the competitive trials, participants were told their scores would be compared to all other participants and publicly posted in ranking order, and that they would need to try hard to perform well. Participants were then asked to stand for one minute before the trial began.


The British Psychological Society

The British Psychological Society (BPS) Annual Conference takes place from 7 to 9 May 2014 at the Birmingham International Convention Centre. For details of the programme visit

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